EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's very possible no Giants rookie ever began his NFL career under more trying circumstances than Corey Ballentine.
The young man from Washburn University in Kansas plummeted from the euphoria of being selected by the Giants in the sixth round of the NFL Draft to the despair of a tragic and inexplicable shooting hours later in which his best friend was killed and he was wounded. That is a heavy burden for any 23-year-old to shoulder, much less a former small-college player trying to find his footing on an NFL field and in the big city. But Ballentine has persevered and thrived and regained his balance away from football while impressing his teammates and coaches as he competes for a job in the Giants' secondary.
"It's been a lot of highs and lows," Ballentine said today in his first extended public comments since the shooting during a training camp break. "Trying to stay focused on football now, but everyone kind of knows about the situation I was in. I don't want to speak on it too much, out of respect for my friend, I've been kind of dealing with it on my own, the Giants have been helping me. Been seeing therapists, and I just kind of realized I can't keep myself in that mental space. I've got goals to reach, and come and help the team win, so I've got to do my own thing and keep progressing. Life's not going to wait on me, so I'm just going to keep doing my thing."
Ballentine was drafted on Saturday, April 27. Later that night, he and Dwane Simmons were at a party near the Washburn campus when an assailant opened fire, wounding Ballentine in the buttocks. Simmons, whom Ballentine called a "brother," was killed. On July 12, 18-year-old Francisco Alejandro was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
"I don't want to go into detail, but just a tragic event, and I lost my best friend because of it," Ballentine said. "I don't think it was anything I had to do with it, I just happened to be there, and nothing that I could control. So, to this day I just try not to think about it too much because there's nothing I can do about it at this point, and I know the police are doing their best to make peace with the family, and bring justice to the family as well."
Ballentine was the 2018 Cliff Harris Award winner as the small-college defensive player of the year and was one of three Division II players selected to the Senior Bowl. He was the third defensive back drafted by the Giants and 180th overall selection, but the team believes he can become a contributor in their secondary.
"He's very smart, he's very instinctive," coach Pat Shurmur said. "Each day, he looks a little bit more comfortable. I would say it's running parallel with two things. Obviously, coming back from the gunshot. And then also just becoming more comfortable in the defense. He made a play yesterday which was good, and he's generally been in the right spot. He's been competing. We're sort of pleased to this point with his progress."
Asked if they still talk about the shooting, Shurmur said, "No, we've moved on from it. It'll always be a part of who he is, but we don't talk about it."
Ballentine has progressed physically, saying he is now 100%. "I can run, I can jump, I can't really feel it at all," he said.
On the field, he is a sixth-round draft choice from a small college trying to overcome the odds not just to earn a spot on the roster, but to prove he deserves playing time. He stepped up yesterday in practice, intercepting a pass and returned it for a touchdown.
"It felt good," Ballentine said. "I feel like I'm finally starting to get somewhere. I came in the spring a little late to minicamp and all that stuff, so learning the plays I was kind of behind the eight ball, and I'm also learning the nickel and corner, so two positions at once, and now I feel like I'm finally starting to move forward, and now I'm making plays, and it was just kind of rewarding to know that the hard work and the long nights of staying up is paying off.
"In my mind, I've always felt like I can compete with people at this level. It's just I happened to take a different route coming out of high school. Then going to Division II, I think I might have developed a little bit late. I was a little small in high school. So, I just took a different route. But as far as ability and mental capacity, I think I can handle the workload. It hasn't been too tough. I can't do it by myself, obviously. I've been having help from my teammates and my coaches. They kind of threw me into the fire a little bit. As I'm getting more reps, I make mistakes sometimes but I'm learning from those mistakes. I think it's getting better for me as I progress. I'm learning more, and I'm starting to put myself in the right position to make plays. The transition hasn't been too bad yet. I think I can handle it."
The same can be said of Ballentine's psychological recovery. He still grieves over Simmons' death. Though he doesn't currently have one, Ballentine is considering getting a tattoo to honor his late friend.
The Giants gave Ballentine all the time and space he needed to recover, physically and emotionally, and the rookie corner missed many of the spring drills. Ballentine said it took time for him to focus again on football. But he knew he had to devote his energy to the game if he was to give himself a chance to make the team.
"I think about it every day obviously, because it was somebody that was in my life every day and it's hard to fill that gap," Ballentine said. "And I haven't filled it yet. But like I said, I'm trying to move forward. We have goals to accomplish here, the playbook I have to learn, and other things I have to learn, so I just can't keep myself in that place. But I think about it every day. It's hard, and earlier on I was paranoid, but now that I'm out here in New York, I've got a lot of support from the organization, and a lot of other people too. I've been talking to Janice, the psychologist, and just trying to get my mind off of it. So, now I'm not thinking about it too much. I'll always have it in my heart, but I'm moving forward with my life."
That alone is a significant and admirable development.